On Thursday night, the eyes of baseball fans across the country were glued to MLB Network as the starters for both the American League and National League were announced. As usual, the starting position players were determined based off of a fan vote which means that some selections may be questionable or based purely on popularity instead of performance.
One of the most intriguing position battles was American League catcher where Jonah Heim of the Rangers and Adley Rutschman of the Orioles battled it out. Entering Thursday, Heim was in the lead with 52% of the vote to Rutschman's 48%. Unfortunately for Rutschman and Orioles fans, Heim did earn the starting nod and will represent the American League behind home plate to start the game.
Rangers catcher Jonah Heim beats out Adley Rutschman to start All Star Game based on fan voting
The Orioles have not had a fan-voted All-Star starter since Manny Machado represented at shortstop in 2018 shortly before he was traded to the Dodgers. Cedric Mullins also started in the outfield in 2021 but was an injury replacement for Mike Trout and not actually selected by the fans to start. Despite not earning the starting nod, it is all but guaranteed that Rutschman will earn his first All-Star Game appearance this summer as he has had a breakout season for the Orioles and is on pace to lead the team to their best season since 2016 when they earned a Wild Card appearance. So, did the fans get this one right?
As a lifelong Orioles fan and writer for Birds Watcher, it is my instinct to say that the fans obviously got this wrong. How can you choose a career journeyman who started his professional career in the Orioles organization before being tossed around the league like a ragdoll over one of the faces of baseball? This article will hope to take a less biased approach than that and determine whether or not this was the right decision based on stats and trends.
Adley Rutschman has been a star since before he was drafted. At Oregon State, he helped the Beavers to a National Championship win in 2018 before having an elite 2019 season which solidified himself as the clear number one overall pick in the '19 draft. As a prospect, Adley ran through the minors quickly and was the number one overall prospect in the sport by the time he was called up in May 2022. In the majors, Adley has lived up to the hype thus far as a well above average hitter and a catcher who works well with his pitching staff.
It is no coincidence that Orioles pitchers got better across the board as soon as Rutschman was called up. As a hitter this season, Rutschman has a .268/.378/.411 slash line with a 123 OPS+. The plate discipline has been outstanding as Adley is one of the few hitters who has walked more than he has struck out. In 341 plate appearances, he has walked 52 times with only 48 strike outs. Compared to last season, Rutschman has greatly improved his home run swing as he has 10 homers in 76 games compared to 13 in 113 games last season.
Of course, this season has also been highly successful for Heim. His slash line sits at .279/.331/.469 with an .800 OPS and 118 OPS+. Offensively, Heim and Rutschman have had similar seasons according to basic metrics. While their OPS is only separated by eleven points and OPS+ by five, they have had different approaches at the plate.
While Adley has been one of the most patient hitters in baseball, Heim is the opposite. Heim has a below average walk rate and has only reached base via a walk 20 times in 284 plate appearances. What he lacks in plate discipline, however, he makes up for in power. In nearly 60 fewer plate appearances, Heim has had more home runs (11 to 10) and more doubles (17 to 11) than Rutschman.
The peripheral power numbers also hold up for Heim. He has an impressive .191 isolated power and a .344 weighted on base average. His defense also holds up extremely well according to Fangraphs. The Fangraphs defensive metric gives him 11.2 value which shows that he is an elite defensive catcher.
Behind home plate, he has gunned down 10 of 38 potential base stealers and he has saved three runs above average with his ability to throw out baserunners. He has also saved five runs above average and has a positive frame rate. In other words, good power numbers and elite defense are the two factors working most in Heim's favor.
As I mentioned earlier, the offensive stats for Heim and Rutschman are quite similar although they have reached it through different means. Defensively, however, Rutschman has been above average but not elite like Heim. Adley has caught 9 of 51 potential base stealers and has 0.5 defensive value this season according to Fangraphs.
Compared to Heim, Rutschman has struggled throwing out base runners this season as he has allowed three runs above average on his ability, or lack thereof, to throw out base stealers. There has certainly been a defensive drop off from last year as he has struggled to throw out baserunners and his framing stats have dropped as well. Adley still has positive numbers in most defensive categories but Heim has clearly been the better defensive catcher this season.
Once again, both catchers have strong arguments to be the American League representative behind home plate. Rutschman's best arguments are his elite plate discipline and name value as a star-level player and potential superstar. Whether or not name value should matter is another debate, but there is no question that Rutschman has higher name recognition and brand value than Heim.
Adley has appeared in numerous commercials nationally and has cameoed with Major League Baseball on social media several times as well. Meanwhile Heim, while clearly a good player, does not have that level of national recognition. As far as plate discipline is concerned, Adley ranks in the 96th percentile for walk rate and 90th in strikeout rate. He also ranks in the 93rd percentile in whiff rate meaning that he rarely swings and misses.
The biggest arguments working in Heim's favor is his power and strong defense. According to BaseballSavant, Heim ranks in the 88th percentile for frame rate and 80th percentile for expected slugging percentage. Ultimately, given the stats I have mentioned throughout this article, I believe that either Heim or Rutschman would be good candidates to represent the American League as a starting catcher.
I do find it surprising, however, that fans decided to choose a player who is better in the peripheral stats that do not appear on the front page of MLB.com over a player with great offensive stats and near superstar status. I can not definitively say whether or not the fans made the correct decision here given how close the two players are statistically. I do, however believe that fan voting is not the best process for determining All-Stars but that is a discussion for another day.